From the very beginning, there was always a certain blue-collar quality to Jason Molina's songs, a working-class element informing his lyrics. But nowhere is it more visible than on Magnolia Electric Co., the seventh Songs: Ohiaalbum. The assured, denim-clad, '70s rock feel of the album positions it on the dark edge of town, in the neighborhood of Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, and Bob Seger. But these are no bombastic anthems like the songs of those populist rousers. Molina remains subjective and confessional in tone even when singing, "Someone must have set 'em up/Now they'll be working in the cold gray rock/Now they'll be working in the hot mill steam/Now they'll be working in the concrete," as he does on the incredible seven-plus minute opener, "Farewell Transmission." The song also serves as possibly the first real recorded display on a proper full-length album of what the Songs: Ohia touring band is capable of doing. Seasoned, powerful, and dynamic -- for at least this one song -- Songs: Ohia is an actual band and not just Molina and company.
In fact, Magnolia as a whole has a much more open and collaborative feel than previous albums; Molina even relinquishes lead vocal duties on two occasions. Lawrence Peters applies some outlaw country grit to "The Old Black Hen," but the words sound somewhat awkward coming from him and as a result the song doesn't quite work. Much more successful is Scout Niblett on the rambling "Peoria Lunch Box Blues." Sounding like a female Van Morrison, you can almost see her obsessively pacing back and forth as she sings. But despite all the input from others, the most interesting and compelling thing about this release (like any Songs: Ohia album) is Molina's voice, which has grown beyond being simply an idiosyncratic instrument into a wonderfully expressive one as well. He uses it to stunning effect on "John Henry Split My Heart," a classic B-side rocker in the tradition of "Cowgirl in the Sand" and "Free Bird," and likewise on the relatively somber closer, "Hold on Magnolia," which gets help from slide guitar, violin, and a swaying rhythm to create a beautifully bittersweet mood. Magnolia Electric Co. may not be the best Songs: Ohiaalbum, but it is certainly the most approachable. It has a big, open feel certain to appeal to any classic rock fan, but retains the warm intimacy of previous albums. Not an easy line to walk.